Joe Silva was working at an arcade in Richmond, Va., made a cold phone call to Campbell McLaren, and helped build a sport.
The unlikely story of Joe Silva, an arcade worker who watched early UFC events and made a cold phone call, which led to him becoming one of the most influential people in building a worldwide sport, will have a fitting next and possibly last chapter.
Silva was announced during UFC 211 as the latest inductee into the UFC Hall of Fame as a contributor.
Silva was the matchmaker for UFC from 2001 until retiring this past December after getting a huge cash payout stemming from the sale of the company by the Fertitta brothers to WME-IMG. Silva, along with Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta, were probably the three most influential people in taking a company on life support in 2001 and building it into a sport that is televised and sells out live events all over the world.
“Joe Silva is the greatest matchmaker in the history of any combat sport,” UFC president Dana White said. “Period.”
Silva was very different from the other two. During his tenure, he had frequently been impressed with how hard White and Fertitta worked, noting that if he was rich like they were, he’d walk away and enjoy his family, never thinking that such a day would come. During all the talks of a sale in 2016, Silva, working the crazy hours of constantly making matches and remaking matches after injuries, drug-test failures and other issues that would change events on a daily basis, wouldn’t even think about the sale. If there was a sale, and the price was in the $4 billion range that was being talked about, he’d be getting more than enough for him to retire and live comfortably on for the rest of his life. His reaction was that things like that don’t happen to people like him. So he blocked all of the talk from his head space.
Then it happened. The sale was completed. Silva announced his retirement, saying he’d work through the end of the year. He noted a few weeks ago that he hasn’t had a bad day since.
Silva was a 29-year-old arcade worker, living in Richmond, Va., who made a random phone call to Campbell McLaren of Semaphore Entertainment Group in 1994. McLaren, at the time, was running the UFC. By some fluke, that neither he nor McLaren could ever fully explain, McLaren decided to take the call. McLaren was so impressed with Silva’s knowledge of fighting that he tabbed Silva “UFC’s greatest fan,” and soon after that, hired him as a consultant.
Until his retirement, he had the longest tenure working for the UFC of anyone in history.
“To have been a part of the UFC from its early days and to see the heights to which it has risen has been amazing,” Silva said. “The martial arts have been my passion since I was a kid, and to have been a part of the sport that has impacted them so much was a wonderful experience. To be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame is a great honor and caps off what has been a wonderful journey.”
Silva loved reading about all subjects, but in particular, was a huge fan of boxing, kickboxing, martial arts and pro wrestling. He trained and did real fight sparring with rules that would allow basically anything you could come up with to do. So he was aware of the value of wrestling and submissions, along with the striking that the public thought was the be-all and end-all of a real fight. That taught him enough to know that most of what was in the martial arts and fighting magazines of the time was pure fantasy. An actual sport like UFC, which mixed boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, judo and jiu-jitsu, was like a dream to him.
He saw an ad in Black Belt magazine that the UFC was looking for fighters, and called the phone number. He and McLaren talked for hours on that first call. And they continued to talk. McLaren was fascinated by Silva’s knowledge of fighting and his perspective on the fights, and wanted to fly him in for shows.
Silva, at the time, had never flown in an airplane, and didn’t even have a drivers license.
Silva continued to turn down McLaren’s offers to come to shows until the 1995 Ultimate Ultimate in Denver, a one-night tournament of UFC’s biggest stars. The lure of seeing a show so big overrode his never wanting to fly. After that point, he was regularly attending the early shows that helped build the sport and its early stars.
Later, Silva worked with Jeff Blatnick and John McCarthy to write the UFC’s first rule book.
Silva didn’t even own a computer. Blatnick took a liking to him immediately, and bought him one. Later, when Silva became Vice President of Talent Relations, it was joked that a guy who had never eaten an expensive steak was now an executive dining with the Fertittas in fancy Las Vegas restaurants.
Had SEG sold the company to Dan Lambert, the current owner of American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla., as was expected to happen in 2000, Silva would have almost surely been a forgotten figure in UFC history.
But instead, the Fertitta brothers purchased the company. Silva had become friends with Tito Ortiz, who was UFC’s top star at the time of the sale. After Ortiz had lost to Guy Mezger in his second UFC fight, it was Silva who pushed hard for UFC to bring Ortiz back, thinking he had potential to be a top star, and had charisma. As Ortiz climbed the ranks and had become the light heavyweight champion, White asked Ortiz who he thought should be the UFC’s matchmaker. Ortiz suggested Silva. White and the Fertittas didn’t even know who Silva was, but after talking to Silva, they were impressed and hired him for the job.
In 2004, when UFC was on its last legs, and Lorenzo Fertitta and White decided to try and get UFC fights on television, nobody was interested. The next idea was to produce a reality show, and they came up with a concept, a show called “The American Promoter.” The idea was a reality show about White, following him around while he put together shows a few times a year.
Silva argued against the idea, and came up with an alternative plan, a show about unknown fighters who would fight to get a UFC contract, coming up with the name, “The Ultimate Fighter.” He also handpicked most of the fighters for the first season, including Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, and most of the key stars that emerged coming out of all the show’s early seasons.
After the success of the reality show, and then of live fights on Spike, Versus, now NBC Sports Network, wanted to get into the MMA game. They were negotiating with the International Fight League. UFC was trying to head them off, but due to having an exclusive contract with Spike, UFC couldn’t put fights on Versus.
To get around that, the Fertittas purchased World Extreme Cagefighting, a group that was running casino events in Lemoore, Calif., outside of Fresno. WEC was to be a separate promotion to enable UFC to head off the IFL, and get a presence on Versus.
It was Silva’s idea to use WEC to feature smaller fighters, rather than just the heavier weight classes that were in the UFC.
It was the success of the WEC, and in particular the popularity of Faber, which made the WEC, and with it, the featherweight and bantamweight divisions popular. Eventually the stars of WEC got so big and the Faber vs. Jose Aldo pay-per-view show was so successful that the decision was made to shut down the promotion as a separate entity and bring the stars, and those weight classes, to UFC.
Silva remained an improbable executive. While many growing up in Richmond, Va., would dream of being an executive for a major company based in Las Vegas, it wasn’t for him. He was ready to quit and go back to Virginia, and to his family, years ago. By that point he’d more than proven his value. White agreed to allow him to work from home to keep him, and most of his work was done out of his home office rather than the UFC office.
Along the way, he trained Sean Shelby, the UFC’s current head matchmaker, in his concepts of how to match up talent. Unlike with boxing, where stars are picked from early on and given easy matches and wins to build up records, Silva tried to match fighters more evenly. By doing so, UFC results became far more unpredictable, with major upsets almost every weekend. It also trained fans to accept that almost everyone would lose, and that losses, while important, are things you can rebound from as opposed to things that end careers.
Silva didn’t always get his way, although White, and others, would joke that it was impossible to win an argument with him. But Silva had a hand in virtually all major matches the company put on from its near death to being sold in what, at the time, was the biggest money sports franchise sale in world history.
Nicknamed “the best matchmaker on the planet,” Silva went from booking six shows a year with maybe eight fights, to 45 shows with 10 to 13 fights and managing a roster of more than 600 fighters. He described his plight as going from being a master chef to a short-order cook.
While doing all this, Silva largely stayed out of the public spotlight. He was rarely shown on television, although fighters and announcers would constantly mention his name during broadcasts. The only reason fans could likely pick the otherwise mysterious Joe Silva out of a police lineup would be because he would be introduced individually to fans at weigh-ins.
Since then, he’s returned to anonymity, reading books and studying all sorts of subjects. The only difference is, people today know that boxing isn’t a real complete fight, and that the kind of fights you used to see in martial arts movies aren’t what real fights usually look like either. His theories of the importance of wrestling, submissions and all forms of ground fighting in an actual freestyle fighting situation were proven. The idea that such a sport incorporating them being financially viable was also proven. The idea that the public will pay big money to see smaller talented, charismatic fighters was proven as well.
In all, Silva negotiated more than 3,000 fights on 340 different events held around the world.